July 5, 2010

AUTHORITY HASN'T BEEN ABLE TO LIMIT CONSUMPTION OF INFORMATION....:

Clay Shirky: 'Paywall will underperform – the numbers don't add up': The internet guru on the death of newspapers, why paywall will fail and how the internet has brought out our creativity – and generosity (Decca Aitkenhead, 7/05/10, The Guardian)


"Everyone's waiting to see what will happen with the paywall – it's the big question. But I think it will underperform. On a purely financial calculation, I don't think the numbers add up." But then, interestingly, he goes on, "Here's what worries me about the paywall. When we talk about newspapers, we talk about them being critical for informing the public; we never say they're critical for informing their customers. We assume that the value of the news ramifies outwards from the readership to society as a whole. OK, I buy that. But what Murdoch is signing up to do is to prevent that value from escaping. He wants to only inform his customers, he doesn't want his stories to be shared and circulated widely. In fact, his ability to charge for the paywall is going to come down to his ability to lock the public out of the conversation convened by the Times."

This criticism echoes the sentiment of Shirky's new book, Cognitive Surplus; Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. The book argues that the popularity of online social media trumps all our old assumptions about the superiority of professional content, and the primacy of financial motivation. It proves, Shirky argues, that people are more creative and generous than we had ever imagined, and would rather use their free time participating in amateur online activities such as Wikipedia – for no financial reward – because they satisfy the primal human urge for creativity and connectedness. Just as the invention of the printing press transformed society, the internet's capacity for "an unlimited amount of zero-cost reproduction of any digital item by anyone who owns a computer" has removed the barrier to universal participation, and revealed that human beings would rather be creating and sharing than passively consuming what a privileged elite think they should watch. Instead of lamenting the silliness of a lot of social online media, we should be thrilled by the spontaneous collective campaigns and social activism also emerging. The potential civic value of all this hitherto untapped energy is nothing less, Shirky concludes, than revolutionary.

Unfortunately, I am precisely the sort of cynic Shirky's new book scorns – a techno-luddite bewildered by the exhibitionism of online social networking (why does anyone feel the need to tweet that they've just had a bath, and might get a kebab later?), troubled by its juvenile vacuity (who joins a Facebook group dedicated to liking toast?), and baffled by the amount of time devoted to posting photos of cats that look amusingly like Hitler. I do, however, recognise that what I like to think of as my opinions are really emotional prejudices. But equally, Shirky's prediction for Murdoch's paywall sounds suspiciously like an emotional objection, rather than a financial calculation. How, then, can he be certain his entire analysis of the internet isn't just as subjective as my kneejerk cynicism?

"I'd say first of all that the notion that any expression of the world can be a value-neutral description of what life is really like is a fantasy, right?" he agrees readily. "We're all postmodern enough to recognise that any writer on any subject is operating within those constraints. And I have the amiably simple-minded view of this stuff you would expect from an American, which is that I think freedom is good, full stop. So therefore I think I'm probably constitutionally incapable of seeing a massive spread in those freedoms as being anything other than salutary for society."


...since Protestantism introduced widespread literacy.


Posted by Orrin Judd at July 5, 2010 6:42 AM
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